A place to cure and be cured

Three thousand years’ worth of health-related artifacts and information related to the capital are on display at the Tower of David Museum.

Children comforted by toys at Shaare Zedek Hospital, 1908. (photo credit: THE SHAARE ZEDEK MEDICAL CENTER COLLECTION, JERUSA)
Children comforted by toys at Shaare Zedek Hospital, 1908.
In II Samuel 24, King David builds an altar to God to end an epidemic among the people of Israel. With that act, he not only laid the foundation of what was to become the First Temple, he also established Jerusalem as a place of divinely sent remedies to divinely sent plagues, a place of both medical and miracle cures. From the moment he bought the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite as the site of his altar, Jerusalem became not just a political capital, but a capital of health and medicine as well.
That status of Jerusalem as a place where people have come from all over the world to cure and be cured is the focus of a fascinating new exhibition at the Tower of David Museum. Called “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis,” the show takes the viewer on a journey through the Holy City’s history from King David to the present day, from the perspective of sickness and therapy.
More than a year and a half in the making, the exhibition unfolds across a time frame of more than 3,000 years, as displayed throughout the museum in a clever presentation by designer Daniel Rosenthal and his company, Design Mill.
“This is a big exhibition that required a lot of research,” says Tower of David Museum director Eilat Lieber, who first conceived the idea for the show. “It opens a window on unknown stories – sometimes with surprising secrets – that tell the history of Jerusalem through medicine. Because we realized that Jerusalem has been the capital of medicine throughout the years – from the time of the Bible, through the Second Temple period, to medieval times and up to the last centuries. Our curator found in Jerusalem the very strong connection between faith and health. And we found out about so many people who were involved with medicine in the Old City, so many hospitals and doctors, and so many thousands of people who came here because of the holiness of the city.”
Visitors to the exhibition learn that David’s son, King Solomon, continued his father’s tradition of healing through his knowledge of the curative attributes of plants and animals. As the verse in I Kings 4:33 states, “He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall.” The story proceeds through four later kings of Judah who suffered afflictions as punishment for their transgressions, impiety and lack of faith: Asa, afflicted in his legs, who asked for help from doctors instead of putting his faith in God; Joram, who died in agony on account of his sins; Uzziah, stricken with leprosy as punishment for his arrogance; and Hezekiah, cured of a punishing skin affliction through prayer.
Approaching the latter days of the First Temple period, the exhibition shows how a divine plague delivered Jerusalem from a siege by the Assyrians. As the cities of Judah fell one by one to the invading army of Assyria in 701 BCE, the fate of Jerusalem appeared to be sealed. However, when the prophet Isaiah predicted that God would defend the holy city of David, the would-be conquerors suddenly lifted their siege and withdrew from their positions outside the city walls – according to some sources, because of a plague that suddenly spread through the Assyrian army and killed thousands in a single night. Text from the exhibition informs visitors that although modern-day researchers studying the history of medicine have made efforts to identify the mysterious plague, no medical explanation has been found for Jerusalem’s miraculous delivery from the Assyrian forces.
It is also during this period that we find the first real evidence of medicine as a profession in Jerusalem. The exhibition proudly displays an early sixth century BCE bulla, or imprint, found recently in the City of David, bearing the inscription: “Tobshalem son of Zakur the physician.”
A mention of Josephus’s account of the cruel and controversial King Herod dying in agony despite all efforts to cure him begins the show’s look at the Second Temple period, but we quickly see that the major figure of this tumultuous era was Jesus, who continued to spread Jerusalem’s reputation as a holy place of healing by cleansing lepers, opening the eyes of the blind, raising the sick from their deathbeds and raising the dead from their graves. The exhibition presents not only biblical citations, but also legends from various branches of Christianity.
In the years following the destruction of the Temple, the loss of Jewish sovereignty, Byzantine control and Arab conquest, the holy status of Jerusalem continued to draw pilgrims, priests, scholars and mendicant sinners. Many of these travelers needed medical care; others came to provide it. In 623, Pope Gregory I commissioned the Abbot Probus to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Around 200 years later, Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged Probus’s hospital and added a library to it. That hospital, along with some 3,000 other buildings in Jerusalem, was destroyed in 1005 by Caliph al-Hakim.
Then came the Crusades, when hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers from medieval Europe journeyed to the Holy Land to conquer it and free it from Muslim rule. To care for these holy warriors afflicted with unholy illnesses, the Knights Hospitaller – who later became the Order of St. John – established an infirmary in Jerusalem to care for sick Christian soldiers as well as Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem’s holy sites. The exhibition presents not only a wealth of intriguing information, but also the door knocker believed to have been on the original Crusader hospital, lent to the museum by the Order of St. John in London.
As the show moves forward through time, it reveals that Jerusalem was also a highly valued natural pharmacopoeia, richly endowed with curative plants and herbs. Physicians and pharmacists prepared a wide variety of remedies from raw materials that grew in the hills surrounding the city.
Jerusalem balsam, for example, was formulated by a 17th-century Franciscan monk as a cure for plague. He compounded it from around 40 medicinal herbs growing around the city, mixed with wine and water.
A less complex formula was made from myrrh, frankincense, gum tree and aloe. The effectiveness of Jerusalem balsam, considered a wonder drug, placed it in great demand throughout the world and spawned numerous imitations and fakes.
Theriac, a precursor to modern antibiotics, was known from ancient times as an antidote for toxic substances that came from snake bites and poisonous plants. Jerusalem was an important world center for theriac, with apothecaries producing the anti-toxin from local raw materials found near the city and the Dead Sea.
During several visits to Palestine in the mid-19th century, Swiss physician and adventurer Titus Tobler chronicled the practice of medicine in Jerusalem, meticulously compiling a list of traditional medicines that he found in the shop of an Arab merchant in the Suq el-Attarin spice market. Many of the things Tobler saw – on display in a small outdoor alcove – are still used in traditional medicine and sold at the same site, about a five-minute walk from the Tower of David.
The exhibition's focus on Jerusalem as a source for medicines culminates with the establishment of the Teva pharmaceutical company in the city in 1901.
There is an entire gallery devoted to the establishment of hospitals in Jerusalem during the 19th and 20th centuries, first by Christian missionaries and then by Jewish philanthropists, in an epic struggle for Jerusalemites’ bodies and souls. As better sailing and later steamship travel made it possible for more Christian pilgrims from Europe and America to visit the Holy Land, many needed medical care. Medical facilities in Jerusalem were either poor or nonexistent, so Christian missionary organizations began to set up hospitals to care for ailing pilgrims – and, they hoped, to convert non- Christians. These hospitals offered modern medicine in a calm but constant religious atmosphere, even promising kosher food to Jewish patients.
The response from rabbis in the city was quick and unequivocal. Strenuously objecting to the opening of these hospitals, they saw them as interference with the will of God – who alone decided who should be sick and who should be well – and as a flagrant attempt to convert Jews. The show features, among other artifacts, posters from rabbis warning that anyone treated in a Christian hospital would be forbidden burial in a Jewish cemetery. Thus, in 1854, the Rothschild family resolved to help the indigent population of Jerusalem by establishing the Meir Rothschild Hospital, which would later become Hadassah Hospital.
From more or less that point on, hospitals began to spring up throughout the city, both Christian and Jewish. Jerusalem became one of the first cities in the world to establish hospitals for children: In 1872, pediatric surgeon and obstetrician Dr. Max Sandreczky opened Marienstift, one of the first pediatric hospitals in the world. Jerusalem also pioneered hospitals specializing in the treatment of the eye, when the Order of St. John returned to the city in the 19th century to establish a hospital for eye ailments.
The exhibition shows in striking detail how, as more hospitals opened in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jerusalem doctors made major strides in the understanding of such traditional scourges as leprosy, cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. There is fascinating material from the great cholera epidemic of 1865, including original photographs and a handwritten notebook containing a registry of all those who died. The show also covers the War of Independence and the role that Jerusalem hospitals played in treating the wounded and sick on both sides of the conflict.
The exhibition is rich in artifacts, with everything from a First Temple-period incense shovel found recently in the City of David, to 19th-century “shingles” that Jerusalem doctors and dentists put up to advertise their practices.
Where did all this come from? Exhibition curator Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa explains that “the moment we had the concept and knew what kind of story we wanted to tell, we could only hope we would be able to find the things we were hoping to find. Until the last moment, new and surprising things were being discovered. Because, you know, when you open a door you don’t know what you’re going to find there. You’re looking for one thing, and you find other things you couldn’t have imagined were there. Many of the artifacts were completely unexpected.... Before we knew it, we had this huge story coming from many points of view.”
“Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis” is slated to run until April 2015. Visitors who come to the exhibition on Fridays can also take guided walking tours to hospitals and other institutions pertaining to the exhibition, both inside and outside the walls of the Old City.